No, life has not found a way, I’m not extracting DNA from inclusions found in amber; I work in the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land. It’s a small brick building with a splendid collection of history both recent and prehistoric whose residents stand 30 feet tall and have razor sharp teeth.
Every weekday from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon I sit behind a large table, stare through a lit magnifying glass, and with implements of dentistry I carefully extract the bones of Diego, a 280 million year old dimetrodon, from the hard north Texas rock.
I am an exhibit.
Visitors of the museum who meander all the way back to the Paleozoic section have the opportunity to watch me work and to ask me questions about anything they please, thankfully usually pertaining to my work. One of the most common questions and comments I get deal with patience. “Wow, that seems really tedious” or “How do you have the patience for that? I certainly couldn’t do it” to which I grin and laugh politely with a “yes it is detailed work for sure”.
After a few weeks of these comments I would like to make a few comments on the work myself and let you in on some of my secrets on being patient.
My first task upon arriving as the new Paleontology intern for the summer was to sift through the context dirt that once surrounded Diego and now filled a half dozen catering trays stored in a small closet in the museum. I would pick out a pile of dirt half the size of a golf ball and search for the microscopic bones hidden among the dirt often spending hours without finding anything. Now you may be saying “How could you keep your focus and stay patient when you had so much work to do?” To which I answer now “one rock at a time”.
I never thought about the amount of dirt in the tray nor in the closet, I just focused on my little pile, combing through it as if I might find a diamond or some other jewel (being an unpaid intern, this seemed like the greatest outcome) and after just a couple weeks I had finished looking through every single tray in the closet. This early lesson in discipline set me up perfectly for my real job, fossil prep. Now when I attack a bone I don’t think about trying to get all the rock off and reveal the entire bone. No, that would drive me insane. Instead I focus on pushing back the rock a micrometer at a time. Under intense magnification I watch flakes the size of a grain of sand that appear to me to be the size of paving stones come off in bunches. In rare cases large flakes of rock that covered half the bone come flying off in a single touch of my tools and I am filled with such elation that may surpass ever seeing the Texans win a Super Bowl from the sideline. My first lesson in patience is to focus on the little things, take small victories, microscopic even, so that when something big happens you are surprised and filled with joy.
Now I would be a liar if I said my neck never ached and I never got frustrated with lack of progress, so this is my second lesson. When I begin to feel weary from hunching over the desk or when I become irate at the stubborn rock encrusting my precious Diego, I change my pace. I get up and stretch; I walk around the room and study the fossils on display. I get a drink of water, or I simply rotate the bone and take a different perspective on the situation, attacking at a different and hopefully more prosperous angle. I chuckle to myself every time I change the angle of the rock and where it was once impossible to cut through, large chips start to fly off the bone. Lesson two is when the impatience starts to creep in just take a deep breath, stretch, then change your perspective and you’ll be amazed at the result.
Four hours a day, that’s how long I work. It’s not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but those 360 minutes can feel like 3,000 if you get impatient and watch the clock. During my workday I try not to look at the time more than 4 times because nothing will drive you more insane than watching time slowly crawl onward. They say a watched pot never boils, well a watched clock never ticks. I have come to believe that a minute spent staring at the clock feels slower than an hour spent doing something. So next time it’s 4:30 on a Friday and you’re caught up with all your work don’t just sit at your desk and watch the little clock in the corner of your monitor, don’t even sit around, go clean the break room, go talk to someone in your office who is also done with their work, do something productive and engaging that you normally don’t do and next thing you know it’ll be 5 o’clock and your weekend has started.
Anyone can be patient and everyone can be impatient, patience isn’t something you’re born with its just something you do, like a sport you have to practice to get better. So next time you start to feel impatient just focus on the little things, change your perspective, and don’t look at the clock and you’ll start to notice life get just a little easier.
Your HMNS field crew and lab staff score the missing pelvis!
Willie the Dimetrodon continues to command the attention of your Paleo Dept. personnel. In May through June, David Temple led an intrepid crew who gently lifted the plaster jacket containing Willie’s torso, shoulder and rump. Local ranchers Donny Gale and Gary Max Coltharp once again generously donated their time and machinery – especially useful was the Coltharp front-loader named “Lola.”
But still – though Willie is among the very finest D’dons anywhere, he had a pelvic deficit. Check out this hip diagram.
Willie’s sacral ribs are there, the parts of the vertebral column that hold the hips. However, the hip bones themselves are still missing. Probably some hungry scavenger came by and bit these meaty bits off (one rib was twisted out of place too and the lower left shoulder had some bite marks).
“Locality Edge” comes to the rescue. Discovered by a local science teacher four years ago, Locality Edge is an awesome outcrop of badlands, full of tortuous arroyos, box canyons and spires of red rock. The strata here are just a bit later than our Craddock Bone Bed and about a mile away. We removed a pelvis and set it in a drawer.
We did note that this set of pelvic bones was unusual – the shape was not distorted by the tons of rock that had buried it. Most of the time the burial layers flatten out natural curves of the upper bone, the ilium, and the wide lower bones, pubis & ischium. The Edge pelvis miraculously survived 285 million years under the rock layers. The lower bones kept the strong inward curve that the living animal had.
The thought erupted in our minds: Could the Edge pelvis fit our Willie? Was it big enough??
Was it the correct species? We took the pelvis out of its museum tray and I brought it to the small but excellent prep lab at the Morrison Museum in Colorado (located a short drive from the famous Coors Brewery). The Morrison Museum generously opens its facilities for special Houston projects. Thirty hours of work later, with the assistance of three delicate pneumatic chisels, the outer form was cleaned of the rock (note the specimen in the skilled hands of a Morrison volunteer at right).
Superb! And when the inner surface of the ilium was placed next to Willie’s sacral rib, they clicked together precisely. The size was perfect. So was the shape – the Edge specimen clearly came from the same species and the same body size.
Now, the pelvis is getting its final beauty-treatment at the skilled hands of volunteers at the Houston Museum prep lab.
Ever wondered where snakes come from? Why they’re poisonous? How they move so quickly? Or, how a a python couldeat an alligator? Whether they freak you out or fascinate you, snakes are an ancient species with much to tell us about the process of evolution.
Enter Brazilian paleontologist Hussam Zaher and a one-of-a-kind, 50-million year old fossil snake from the Green River formation in Wyoming.
Zaher (professor and curator of the collections of Herpetology and Paleontology at the Museu de Zoologia of the Universidade de São Paulo) is currently in Houston to investigate this unique fossil, which is thought to be the evolutionary link between snakes who take a lot of small bites to eat their prey and snakes who swallow their prey whole (a la the famed alligator-hungry python linked above).
This Friday at 10 am, the fossil will undergo a 64-slice CT scan at The Methodist Hospital, giving Zaher a peek at the previously-unseen inside and underside. The cross-sectional images will allow him to examine the internal structure of the snake’s brain cavity to more accurately place it within the context of snake evolution.
We’ll be there to bring you the science as it is uncovered, by live tweeting (follow @hmns and #snakefossil) the scanning process on Friday morning. We’ll also be getting behind-the-scenes pictures for our Flickr photostream and a video reaction from Zaher once the fossil has been scanned that we’ll post as soon as we can.
Check out the blog tomorrow for a pre-scan post from Zaher. If you’ve got any specific questions you’d like answered, leave them in the comments!
More than 4 million years since she last walked the Earth and more than 15 years since her discovery was first announced, a distant human ancestor dubbed “Ardi” was introduced to the general public on Oct 1, 2009. Nicknames abound in this field where long scientific nomenclature is common. So, meet “Ardi”, a member of the genus Ardipithecus.
Who was Ardipithecus? When and where did they live? What can we say about their diet and behavior? How do they relate to later fossils, such as Lucy, as well as to us? Where do they fit in with regards to our closest living primate relatives, the chimps? This is an extensive array of questions, not unusual to find when fossils are discovered. Scientists rely on an equally extensive array of approaches to find answers.
Lets start with the first question:who was Ardipithecus?
The genus Ardipithecus derives its name from an Afar language word, “ardi“, which means “ground” or “floor.” By choosing this term, the scientists involved in the discovery clearly wanted to reflect the place Ardipithecus occupied in human evolution: as close to the very beginning of hominids as possible. Defining “hominid” as any fossil species closer to modern humans than to chimps and bonobos, which are our closest living relatives, Dr. Tim White stated: “This is the oldest hominid skeleton on Earth.”
After their discovery of the first Ardipithecus remains in 1992, scientists had identified the bones of 17 hominid fossils by the end of 1993. These specimens were retrieved from a cluster of localities West of the Awash River, within the Afar Depression, Aramis, Ethiopia. Hominid and associated fossil faunas, including wood, seed and vertebrate specimens, were dated to about 4.3 million years ago.
Over a period of several years, the team followed up with more excavations at the location of the original discovery. They collected 125 fragments of skulls, teeth, arms, hands, the pelvis, legs and feet. In addition to this skeleton, the area yielded a total of 110 other catalogued specimens representing body parts of at least 36 other Ardipithecus individuals.
There is more than one species within the genus Ardipithecus. Scientists distinguish between Ardipithecuskadabba (5.8 – 5.2 million years ago) and Ardipithecusramidus (4.4 million years ago). Both discovered in the Awash valley in Ethiopia, these two species lived after the split between the human and chimpanzee lineages. They represent the earliest known hominids from Ethiopia.
Where did they live?
The remains of Ardipithecuskadabba and Ardipithecusramidus have been found in Eastern Ethiopia. When they roamed that area, the Great Rift was a well-established geologic feature. The environment 4-to-5 million years ago was very different from that of today. The climate was cool and wet. Ardipithecuskadabba and Ardipithecusramidus lived in an area of swamps, streams and dense tree cover, rather than in a mosaic of forest and grassland, as originally thought. This evidence has caused a re-examination of the hypothesis on the origin of upright walking.
What can we say about their behavior?
It seems that Ardi was equally at home on the ground as she was in the trees. Her feet, pelvis, legs, and hands suggest she walked upright on the ground but moved around on all fours when in the trees. The large, flaring bones of the upper pelvis were positioned so that Ardi could walk on two legs without lurching from side to side like a chimp. Ardipithecus gives us a close look at an upright walking being and a chance to evaluate the mechanisms that may have caused this behavior to evolve and remain until today.
Traditionally, scientists suggested that the evolution of upright walking was closely related to the disappearance of the forest cover and its replacement by grasslands. Creatures adapted to living in trees were now forced to cross grasslands in order to go from one island of trees to another, the thinking went. However, crossing through the grass would make them very vulnerable to predator attacks. Walking upright allowed one to see predators sooner, thus representing a beneficial adaption to a changing environment. We now know that the origins of upright walking pre-dates the widespread disappearance of the forests and their replacement by grasslands. Bipedalism did not evolve as an adaptation to receding forest cover and expanding grasslands. Back to the drawing board, in other words.
Bipedalism is now thought to have evolved in a tree environment.
Questions remain: how and why? Among living non-human primates, researchers have observed bipedal stances in creatures such as orangutans as they move around in the trees, while chimpanzees most often stand upright when they feed on small objects in the trees. Early human ancestors, such as Ardipithecus, who lived in a tree environment, may have had similar adaptations.
The discovery of the genus Ardipithecus and the study of the environment in which they once lived have caused us to revisit and refine the thinking on the origins of upright walking. However, we can’t be sure that bipedalism first emerged in the Awash Valley. Its origins may lie even further back in time.
Upright walking may also relate to another aspect of Ardipithecus’ behavior: monogamy. Here is where a hypothesis originally dating back to the 1980s has found new traction. Dr. Owen Lovejoy suggests that instead of fighting for access to females, a male Ardipithecus would supply a “targeted female” and her offspring with gathered foods and gain her sexual loyalty in return. Walking upright freed his hands to carry the food, thus helping him to achieve this goal.
The fossil Lucy.
How does Ardi relate to Lucy?
Ardi pre-dates Lucy by more than a million years. She was larger and heavier than Lucy. Lucy was a more adept upright walker than Ardi. Both Ardi and Lucy lived well before stone tools were in use. Their brain size was similar to that of a chimp. Both were found in the same region of Ethiopia, with Ardi’s site just 46 miles (74 kilometers) away from where Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, was found in 1974.
What traits does Ardi share with us, Australopithecines and chimps?
Like chimps, Ardi had an opposable big toe. However, she was probably not as agile in the trees as a chimp. Unlike chimps, however, she could have carried things while walking upright on the ground, and would have been able to manipulate objects better than a chimp. And, contrary to what many scientists have thought, Ardi did not walk on her knuckles, White said.
“Ardi was not a chimpanzee, but she wasn’t human,” stressed White, who directs UC Berkeley’s Human Evolution Research Center. “When climbing on all fours, she did not walk on her knuckles, like a chimp or gorilla, but on her palms. No ape today walks on its palms.”
Moreover, Ardi’s small, blunt, upper canine teeth, very likely reflect amicable relationships, leaving open the possibility of pair-bonded couples living together in social units. Ardi’s dentition contrasts sharply (no pun intended) with the much larger canine teeth found in chimpanzees and gorillas, animals known for their teeth-baring threat behavior. The latter statement is a good example of how paleoanthropologists rely on various sources of information in their attempt to reconstruct past behavior, including comparative primatology. In this case, similarities in dentition between fossil and living primates form the basis for suggested similarities in behavior both past and present. While Ardi’s canines were smaller than those of chimpanzees and gorillas, Lucy’s canines were even smaller in comparison.
Ardi’s teeth also revealed her and her ilk to be omnivores, eating a wide range of foods rather than specializing in a more restrictive diet of fruit or leaves. Being an omnivore is another trait that sets Ardi apart from chimps, animals that eat primarily fruits, and and gorillas, which eat primarily leaves, stems and bark. The research team surmised that Ardipithecus spent a lot of time on the ground looking for nutritious plants, mushrooms, invertebrates and perhaps small vertebrates.
The shape of Ardi’s upper pelvis and aspects of muscle attachment in that part of the hip resemble much more an upright walking human than a knuckle walking chimp. However, the lower pelvis is much more primitive than anything found in other hominids.
Why the buzz?
When the news about Ardi was released, it generated quite a buzz, underscoring the great interest in the study of human origins. Hundreds of media outlets covered the story. Predictably, creationist outlets use the sentiment that Ardi has overturned our understanding of human evolution to make their point that scientists “do not agree” when it comes to human evolution. In making this statement, they display a fundamental misunderstanding of how the scientific process works. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent sites that make the process of understanding the latest news both easier and much more palatable.
Quite often, scientists were quoted stating that this find was “far more important than Lucy.” It also showed that “the last common ancestor with chimps didn’t look like a chimp, or a human, or some funny thing in between.” Questions also abound about what this will do to Lucy’s preeminent status in the world of paleoanthropology. Now that we have an older creature also capable of walking upright, so the thinking goes, will “Ardi” now become the buzzword dujour, instead of Lucy?
In my opinion this is not the right question to ask. We are not dealing with a beauty contest among fossils. Each of these finds has substantially increased our understanding of human evolution. Lucy taught us that bipedalism pre-dates the expansion of the human brain as well as tool making. With Ardi, the most important contribution seems to be that we now need to look beyond chimps (the 98% genetic overlap between humans and chimps notwithstanding) as a model for a common ancestor. What this common ancestor may have looked like and when and where it lived, remains, as of now, a great unknown.